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Pacific's low-lying Tuvalu braced for more 'king waves'

February 20, 2004

FUNAFUTI, Tuvalu : The tiny South Pacific nation of Tuvalu was braced for the year's highest tides, a worrying reminder that the low-lying atoll country could one day slip beneath the waves of the rising ocean.

The unusually high or "king tides" began Thursday, peaking just before sunset and coming not over the beach as would be expected, but as frightening springs of seawater everywhere on this capital atoll.

The tides flooded homes, offices and even part of the airport. Larger tides are expected on Friday and Saturday.

Several hundred metres (yards) into the island, as far as possible as it is to get from the sea, the worst of the flooding occurred Thursday around homes and in ancient compost pits where generations have been growing root crops.

"I am very worried about the sea levels," said Losi Tuaga, 18, as she stood outside her home, ankle deep in seawater bubbling out of the soil.

Her father, Tuaga Petelu, echoed the fears saying things were changing rapidly.

"There is a change in the sea level," he said. "What can we do? We have to wait and see what's happening."

Residents of the atolls are fearful of the rising sea; at island meetings for years they have heard about global warming and the Kyoto Protocol on cutting emissions of gases blamed for driving climate change.

In a humble office concerned Prime Minister Saufatu Sopo'aga urged carbon gas-emitting industrial nations to become partners with Tuvalu in ending global warming, which is producing dangerous rises in the ocean levels.

"I feel angry, but at the same time I do understand the motives behind the drive of industrial nation activities," he told AFP.

"It was not done purposely, there were other motives, and they were looking to bettering the lives of their own countries.

"But Tuvaluans have future generations too who want to enjoy the same resource, the same kind of life that Tuvaluans have today."

Tuvalu is a Polynesian nation of around 11,000 people living on just 26 square kilometres (10 square miles) of land spread over nine atolls, none more than five metres (16 feet) above sea level.

There has been intensive political and scientific debate over whether the atolls are sinking or not, but on the ground the argument seems academic at best.

Seawater bubbles up in the evening as Tuvaluan youth gather on the airport runway -- there are only two flights a week -- to play soccer and volley ball.

A frog in the grass near the runway is startled as water seeps up from the ground, welling up to fill a trench and spread further with a terrifying relentlessness.

Australian-educated meteorologist Hilia Vavae is known throughout the island as she documents with her small camera the changing nature of each king tide.

"Sea temperatures are rising and so is the sea level," she said, standing in a puddle of seawater.

"Global warming is playing a part," she said, insisting that Thursday's high tides were not natural. "No, not at all, it was manmade," she said.

Copyright 2004 Agence France Presse

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